Thanksgiving is THE holiday for me. It is the holiday for which I have fondest childhood memories. It is the time of year that, as a grown person, I begin anticipating weeks out. It means these things: a too crowded house, savory smells from a warm oven, board games and competition, my mom's fanciest plates set on a table that travels a straight line for miles (or until there is nowhere further it can extend), comfort, banana bread, cranberry bread, herb bread, bickering with my sisters (over which way to make the gravy is the BEST way, or which way to marinate the bird is the BEST way). When I was younger, Thanksgiving meant cousins. Now it means nieces, nephews and brothers-in-law, and it has always meant being full. Full in every sense, and also, with my mother. Thanksgiving was special because my mother made it so. It was her holiday, the one she passed on to us.
Last year Thanksgiving fell 3 months after my mother had died. Instead of traveling to North Carolina to cook a big dinner in the new home my parents had built - the one large enough to fit all of their kids and grandkids during this holiday - we rented a beach house.
It was a startling Thanksgiving, not because of any jolting event, but startling in its air of melancholy. The evening we arrived, there was a thunderstorm with wind so strong it shook the stilts our house stood upon. On our last day, sitting on the balcony, wind striking my face, I cried in front of my sisters. I cried because I missed my mother. I cried in fear that my father would remarry too soon - before I was ready to accept another female presence in his home - my parents' home. I remember my oldest sister saying, "If dad marries someone else, it doesn't mean he loved mom any less. It means he had a really good marriage and that he wants to be in that kind of relationship again." This made me cry more - the injustice that he was a widower.
At thirty-two, I love my dad in the way that a tiny girl loves her dad. I still, in his presence, feel like the five-year-old who used to tickle his feet while he slept, who accompanied him to the barber shop around the corner and later played barber on his hair while he sat in his Lazy Boy. The way it feels to love my dad is the way it felt to thrust my body on the floor in a tantrum when he was headed to the store and I could not go, the way it felt to have him take me to a movie when I was in first grade, the way it felt when he praised the made-up ballet I danced in our kitchen as we listened to the Love Story soundtrack on vinyl. Even now, when my dad looks at me, I can see him, a younger man, admiring his baby daughter. It's a love frozen in childhood.
I suppose I have been angry with my father for some time now. Since his birthday the October before that beach-house Thanksgiving. I had flown up to stay with him that weekend, and on my last day in North Carolina, some of his longtime friends arrived from Michigan to visit for a few days. That evening I went off to be alone in another room - to leave the grown ups to their talking. Curled up under a blanket - one my mom made and one I covet - just over a month after her passing, I heard my dad tell his old college buddies of his lonliness. I heard him, fragile and weak, explain that he was not the kind of person who could be alone. Before I could know to cover my ears, to turn up the volume on the television, they were all speaking of his options - of what the situation would be were he to remarry, of how he should go about seeking a new bride. I wanted to rush down the stairs and lambast them all - tell them I was just upstairs and I could HEAR what they were talking about, and did they think this was APPROPRIATE? And HOW DARE THEY - ANY OF THEM. And my mom had only been dead a month. One month. One long, lonely, sad, depressive month. I would have shouted every word.
Instead, I called my husband that night and cried on the phone, unable to speak of the reason why. At the airport the next day, I called two of my sisters. I sobbed the story to them. I felt for the first time: I am not supposed to be a little girl anymore. I am not allowed to be a little girl anymore.
Last Thanksgiving, sitting on the balcolny, I remember my sister - which one I don't know - saying, "He's not going to get married tomorrow. I don't think you need to worry about it." But the weight of the conversation I'd overheard a month earlier remained with me - too heavy to lift. It just sat on my chest. Now, this Thanksgiving, if I were to have blinked my eyes, that last Thanksgiving, would indeed, seem like yesterday. It does feel like yesterday; so he was getting married tomorrow. He was.
And during that yesterday-Thanksgiving when we cooked a big meal in an unfamiliar rent house, the ocean rumbling at our doorstep, we had also sent my mother off. We scattered her ashes over the Atlantic, bid it to take her away while we prayed for her soul to rest. After, we walked slowly along the shore back to our beach house. Inside, I remember that John Denver singing Country Roads spontaneously began playing, mid-song, out of my brother-in-law's computer. My brother-in-law said, "That's funny, I had a different play list going than the one this song is on." We sisters had all looked up at one another as the words, "Country Roads/Take me home/To the place I belong" crept into the room. Then we just listened, quiet and certain that our mother was saying hello. Or goodbye. Or that she was saying, "I am with you on this Thanksgiving." The holiday that is my mother.
Only a few weeks since his surprise marriage to a woman he met in India through a matrimonial search, my dad returned to the US alone, but with plans to file all the necessary papers to sponsor his new wife so she can join him in America. He called me a couple of times, and both times, I was not near my phone. I knew I needed to call him back, but I felt angry and wordless. The way I finally mustered the strength to call was to tell myself before I dialed,"I'm going to pretend my dad is not married." That is what I did. I called, and I told myself, "I am speaking to my dad who is a widower who lives alone in North Carolina and is not remarried." This was the weekend after Halloween - so only 3 weeks before Thanksgiving. He said he hoped we could all come to North Carolina for Thanksgiving.
I could not respond. The thought hushed me inside and out. In those weeks, I struggled. I cried. I thought. If I went - it would be the last time we would have Thanksgiving as the family unit familiar to me since his new wife has not yet arrived. And it would be our first Thanksgiving in the North Carolina house - which they had very much been intending when they built that home. Yet, if I went, I would be angry. And sad. And incapable of asking about or hearing a word about his new wife. No matter what I did, my mother would be a missing person. A missing presence. I did not go.
On Thanksgiving morning, I woke with a swollen heart - both wanting to be with my family and glad to be in my own home in Baton Rouge. We had friends coming - all of our transplant-friends who couldn't make it back to their hometowns. I cleaned my house. Standing at my mantle dusting the colored glass bottles that sit on it, I remembered how my mother had commented on the bottles once when she visited. In an instant, I missed her painfully. I ached in my want for her. I called my oldest sister to say, "I'm just missing my mom." And she said, "It's a hard time. Those are some good memories." And I sobbed, "They are good memories. I just wish it didn't hurt so much to have them." And what could she say. She knew. She knew and agreed.
That evening, eight of us, friends, sat around a table. We each told what we would be doing if we were home with our families. Someone spoke of his pushy grandmother and how her baked goods made it worth having her there. Someone spoke of a super-terrific dance party that was inevitable after having eaten and digested. Someone spoke of his parents embracing his vegetarianism fifteen years earlier and how they would experiment with the latest in vegetarian meat technology. Someone else spoke of the farm she grew up on and the four pies she bakes each year. I spoke of my sisters. Of how we would argue about how to cook everything and how my brothers-in-law would go to the grocery store a hundred times and how it would be crowded and stressful and joyous at once. And I talked about playing board games later in the night. After we ate, more friends arrived. We stood around a fire pit in my backyard, all talking. Talking until two in the morning. Seventeen of us all together. Old friends and new friends meshing just right. Everyone full.
Today, I wondered what Thanksgiving will be next year. I wondered if I will be angry still. I wondered if I could go home and eat turkey with a strange woman. My father's wife, but not my mother. I thought, my dad can't look at me anymore and see a baby daughter. Or can he? Will he see an angry woman and a baby daughter at once? Will he see disappointments and gratitude stewing in one pot the way I do? I thought, now you are supposed to be an adult. You are not supposed to be a girl.